Teaching autistic students can be challenging. Students on the autism spectrum often have difficulty transitioning to new activities due to their lack of understanding and anxiety surrounding new situations. They may also have attention and sensory needs that make it difficult for them to focus. Setting up a classroom with visual cues and schedules can decrease anxiety, increase independence, smooth out transitions and minimize challenging behaviors. Furthermore, paying attention to sensory needs and potential distractions will increase your effectiveness.
Successful Classrooms for Autistic Students:
As you set up your classroom pay attention to where your autistic students will be seated. Windows, the hallway or free time areas can cause lots of distractions. Try to set your student in an area that gives them an unobstructed view of your teaching. Look at your classroom walls. If anything on your wall does not support your teaching take it down. You don’t want your student focusing on a cute picture at the expense of valuable learning time!
Have a Calming Space
Stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings happen in the best classroom situations – so be prepared have a calming area for your autistic student. This doesn’t have to be large, it can be as simple as a small corner behind a desk with a chair or beanbag, a weighted vest or lap pad, some noise cancelling headphones, and a few fidgets. These items can be stored in a basket under or next to the chair. Practice visiting the calm area before a meltdown happens, so when it hits your student knows where to go to refocus.
Use Visual Supports
Simple visual cues and using furniture as boundaries can lessen an autistic student’s anxiety and help them to focus. Visual cues can include: a classroom schedule, visual timer, picture labels for classroom supplies, clear boundaries for different learning areas.
- Use blue painters tape on the floors of your classroom to create line up areas, or boundaries between centers.
- Use furniture as a boundary between your small group instruction area and and the art area.
- As you think about where you will store materials, try to store them in the area they will be used in. For example, keep the art supplies in the art section, pencils, rulers and graph paper in the math area.
- Laminate the autistic student’s name and label to the different areas the student is expected to sit.
- You can also laminate a large piece of construction paper to create a visual cue of the student’s work space.
- Use visuals to mark areas that are off limits. Simple stop signs can label cabinets and areas that are for teacher use only.
Accommodate Sensory Needs
Several studies have shown weighted vests help students focus and pay attention. Weighted lap pads also work for students who have fidgety or restless legs. Sitting discs or wedges also provide students with movement which can help them focus.
Pay attention to fluorescent lighting. Some students are very sensitive to this form of unnatural lighting. If this is the case try to sit your student near a window with lots of natural light or use classroom light filters.
Pay attention to noise. If your student is sensitive to noise keep them away from noisy areas of the classroom like the doorway, pencil sharpener. You may want to let them use noise reducing earphones for quiet study times or in anticipation of fire drills.
More Tips for your success:
Create a predictable schedule especially for the first five minutes of the day. This will allow your autistic student to start the day successfully and ensure a smooth transition into learning.
Use it if it serves a purpose, if not get rid of it. Set up your classroom area and furniture based on your students needs. If you don’t need something let it go. Clutter can be distracting.
For more tips to help you set up your classroom check out Setting Up Classroom Spaces That Support Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.
For Tips & Behavior Strategies check out: A Treasure Chest of Behavioral Strategies.